As if: “bird brain”

My ass:'spatzenhirn'

Common raven. Image: nps.Gov

Birds owe their amazing intelligence to an efficiently constructed brain

Diogenes was not a biologist, but he had an eye for the essentials. When platon defined, the human being is a "bipeds without feathers", he plucked a rooster and presented it as a "plato’s humans" (whereupon plato, for his part, proved and extended a remarkable eye for biological features: "with flat nails" – such actually characterize the primates).

The two disputants seem to have agreed that the differences between humans and birds are mainly to be found in the horny appendages of the skin. And thus, about 2400 years ago, they were remarkably modern.

For while on the one hand primatologists like michael tomasello are constantly uncovering unimagined gaps in the mental abilities of our closest ape relatives, the winged bipeds are just as regularly taking advantage of the emerging embarrassing silence to distinguish themselves with their abilities. For example, pointing: it is considered a fundamental skill for the emergence of language and a "theory of mind", that is, an idea of what the other person is thinking. Apes never show anything, but at most the place on their backs where they want to be scratched. When they want something, they get it. If someone shows them something, they don’t trust it.

Magpies, on the other hand – not exactly known among humans as trustworthy – show each other an enemy. Ravens show each other nesting material. The remarkable grey parrot alex was even able to name the color of an object that his trainer irene pepperberg showed him.

This does not mean that apes were stupid. They probably understand the pointing gesture, but they don’t trust it. That there could be such a thing as selfless cooperation is a foreign thought to them. When it comes to the physical world, they’re as smart as two-and-a-half-year-old kids – but in the social world, they do half as well. And thus, as it seems, also worse than bird. If they observe that a conspecific solves a task in a different way than they themselves have discovered, then apes don’t care: they stubbornly stick to their methods. Tits and man-children, on the other hand, change to the observed slogan. They seem to follow an inner drive to social conformity (synchronized titmice).

But not only in the social field the feathered animals are surprisingly nimble. If you search on youtube for "intelligent bird", "smart bird", "clever bird" or similar, you can see birds scattering breadcrumbs on the water to bait fish, owls spontaneously bending a wire into a hook to fish a bucket (this has also been scientifically published), jackdaws trusting pointing gestures, and even a fog owl using a toy tire to ski on a snow-covered roof.

Scientific publications also showed that corvids can control their impulses as well as primates, hawaiian crows join the illustrious company of tool users, and even pigeons process strings orthographically. One wonders how zoologists could think just a few decades ago that birds were cognitively inflexible reflex machines.

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